Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Lost Identity

By John Ryan

During my three-day journey home from Iraq in 2006, I never prepared for the familiar-yet-oddly-estranged America that awaited me. I envisioned embraces with family, beer-filled reunions with friends, and a much needed close-to-a-war-torn romance.

My travel ended instead with a “Welcome Home” ceremony in a gymnasium at Fort Hood in Texas. There I proudly stood in front of the Master of Ceremony, under finger-painted banners. I felt the whir of adoration from the tearful audience. Once dismissed, I collided with my mother on the gym floor where she wrapped me in her arms, and together, to the auspicious lyrics of Kool and the Gang, we exited the buzzing gym. Ce-le-bra-tion. Boy was I glad to be back.

In the parking lot outside the gymnasium, I received the first of what would be hundreds of questions regarding my experiences in Iraq. My father, who had stood silently behind my mother in the gym, came forward and asked, “So, how does it feel to be back home?” followed by a cautious “And how was it over there, anyway?” My paltry answer sufficed at the time, although I can’t recall its details. It didn’t seem to matter much. What seemed to matter to him was that I was standing unscathed at his side. Of course, not everyone else would be so appeased, but his brief, although unscrupulous, questions alerted me of that. It was a startling revelation. Gone were the simpler days of, “Sir, Lieutenant Ryan reports as ordered!”

I was not my usual outgoing self during the first few months after my return. Frankly, I was a social introvert, who when pried, lashed out with a clipped army tongue. A beloved aunt asked me for my thoughts on the war, and I startled her with the sharpness of a radio transmission, “I don’t know. Don’t want to talk about it. Eliminator 21 out!” Even the most casual conversations besieged me. When a Maytag man, who came to fix my dishwasher, asked about my service in Iraq, I darted to the bathroom, fearful of his political acumen. I was anxious, irritable and, although I didn’t want to admit it, lonely.

Before I could answer anyone’s questions, I needed sometime to untangle my thoughts and emotions. Following a few Google searches, my self-diagnosis was a mild case of social anxiety with a twist of lost identity, caught somewhere in the Kübler-Ross cycle of grief. It dealt me spats of denial, anger, and bargaining, which evoked insecurities that were once disguised by my rank and perceived importance in Iraq. I was suspicious of everyone I met, pinned down by anticipated rhetorical attacks and the ubiquitous subject of a 20/20 interview.

A year after I arrived home, and once I accepted the eternal smudges on my self-esteem, my symptoms receded, revealing the affable demeanor of the high school senior of my past. Kübler-Ross’s final stage of acceptance had finally emerged. I found myself entertaining questions like, “Is it really that bad over there?” with short-but-somehow insightful paragraphs that left my lips with a smirk of contentment. Soon thereafter, I was nudging into conversations at dinner parties to explain how traumatic brain injury occurred in Iraq, and as I did, I felt my own synaptic realignment hasten its pace.

Armed with a new and optimistic outlook, I pontificated why we had invaded, where we went wrong, and how it all could be corrected; and in each case, I shared an anecdote that supported my assertions. I spoke with the uncanny cadence of a down-south drawl and stood with a straight back. It was the first time in a long time that my life outside a uniform and in my own skin was a happy one.

The torrent of my expression swept me into unexamined happiness. My stories streamed like montages from CNN and Fox News; they were cogent upon witness yet they remained single snapshots in time, certainly not indicative of the whole Iraqi tale. My narratives had succumbed to entertainment, and this acknowledgement returned a feeble inner voice. My tongue again knotted and my spine again sagged -- a year and a half of healing for naught.

Through all of this, I discovered that life often leads back to familiar quandaries; problems that re-emerge dissembled, baffling us again. Maybe in the coming months, I will speak openly about Iraq again. Maybe I’ll stop attempting to elucidate thoughts that I know will take years to dismantle. Or perhaps, in the luckiest case, a bolt of clairvoyance will change my life for the better. Until then, all I can do is embrace my family, enjoy a few drinks with friends, and court a new love. Indeed, I don’t feel my best and probably never will, but I’m no longer in Iraq. It is good to be home.

Former Army Captain John Ryan was honorably discharged in 2008 after five years of service. He served in Iraq in 2004 and 2006 and was awarded the Bronze Star for his actions. He graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 2003.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Letter From Beijing

By Susan Chen

Ni men hao~

Greetings from Beijing! As I write this update on my life abroad, away from the comforts of Stanford University, I cannot help but comment on the white "snow" floating outside my window: pollen from the nearby poplar and willow trees. Welcome to Spring in Beijing!

I arrived here on March 30th, greeted warmly by faces familiar and new in a dorm that could easily be mistaken as a hotel. Over the next few days, I gradually adjusted to the unique Beijing way of life: weaving through speeding cars in a cars-before-passengers traffic system, always carrying napkins with me as these seem to be luxury items hardly available anywhere, applying never-too-much lotion to counter the dry and dusty weather. Speaking of dusty, Beijing's reputation as an ultra-polluted city is far from fiction.

Still, Beijing University (Bei Da) and the city itself have a lot to offer. Over the last couple of weeks, I have taken a variety of classes from outstanding Bei Da professors. The native students are extremely bright, hard-working, and modest in behavior and thought. Their educational careers are strict as it is very difficult to change majors and exams are frequent; some even take place on weekends. Student dorms are crowded and unpleasant. Outside the harsh academic environment, Bei Da is dotted by gorgeous magnolia flowers and cherry blossoms, and filled with historical and modern architecture alike. Small rivers and bridges weave through the city, which is animated by thesounds of students and frequent notable visitors.

Supposedly, the Prime Minister of Sweden presented a talk yesterday. Outside the campus, I have had the wonderful opportunity to explore the city in all its magnificence: I took Stanford-sponsored trips to the Summer Palace and Forbidden City, enjoyed a Peking Opera, and spoiled myself with a wealth of delicious cuisine and frequent trips to shopping districts. The 7-to-1 currency exchange rate can render one easily tempted to take out the wallet again and again, and again.

Certainly, Beijing (and most of China) is modernizing. The "New Beijing" is a hallmark of skyscrapers and materialism. The architecture is indeed aesthetically interesting but living in this city has made me more concerned with its psychological effects on people, in how modernizing efforts shape individual behavior and society. Whether urban development should be embraced is not a question with a simple answer. There is massive construction going up on every corner of Beijing (some were in preparation for the Olympics) but most for urbanization within the greater context. It is difficult to stare at brick ruins and hear the sounds of motors running without questioning what was there and what will be there. The displacement of innocent civilians and the overtime labor of construction workers are heavy prices to pay for the sake of a lofty goal to "modernize."

Beijing is changing the course of its history, for better or for worse. China is no longer the weak nation of the past but falls short of "greatness" as is commonly conceptualized. I am fortunate to be a part of this important historical era, knowing that what I see and hear today may not be here five or ten years from now. Conversely, I am very pleased to experience the source of China's pride in its rich history and culture. I eagerly anticipate my planned trips to the Great Wall, Inner Mongolia, Shanghai, Guangdong, and Hong Kong. A lot has changed since I left China more than a decade ago, and I am excited to reacquaint myself with my homeland, and get to know its priceless Chinese culture better!

Zai Jian!

Susan Chen is a junior at Stanford University, double majoring in International Relations and Asian American Studies. She immigrated to the U.S. from China at the age of seven and is very interested in US-China relations. This piece, written in April, 2008, is part of her "China Blog."

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

What Santa Brought Me

By Florin Ion Firimiţã

Christmas came early to me this year, on the evening Barack Obama was elected the next President of the United States. Suddenly, I experienced a miracle: after many years of doubt, I started believing again in Santa Claus.

My friend Paul, a New-Zealander turned Parisian, with whom I occasionally spend lazy summer mornings in a café in Southern France, emailed me right away: “Wow! Your adopted country has always intrigued me,” he said. “You guys have the best and the worst of everything.”

Coming from Romania, whose presidents kept reelecting themselves until they end up disheveled and unapologetic in front of makeshift firing squads, or they are replaced by other dictators-in-waiting, I am not a big fan of fake revolutions, and I am suspicious of any mélange of fantasy, politics and euphoria.

Back in the 80’s, in Romanian classrooms, we pledged allegiance to the Almighty Leader while listening to Bruce Springsteen on the banned short-waves of Radio Free Europe, furtively looking across the ocean: we had the worst, and the best came only from America. We were also suspicious of miracles. The official Santa Claus (or the more politically correct “Father Christmas”) was definitely a Communist (favorite color: red) on the payroll of the secret police. (I have always been suspicious of his gift for knowing both when we were sleeping and when we were awake, and also his ability of sliding up and down our chimneys without being detected.)

In 1981, when Ronald Reagan became the 40th President of the United States, in Romania we kept waiting for him to show up on a white horse and give us a lift. The dream didn’t last long. After a while, we feared that he could be just a B-actor with no interest in coming out of his movies and saving Eastern Europe from the dark basements of the Cold War. For us, the President of the United States existed mainly as a television myth, as unreachable and unreal as Santa Claus, or our own local dictator. The faith of our corner of the world had actually been decided way before the 80s’ when Stalin and the rest of the world powers sliced up our side of Europe like a tired, reluctant pizza. For decades, Romania has always been the poor Eastern-European girl hoping to marry the cultured, sophisticated New Yorker, but ending up with the bloody-handed KGB boy next door.

Why were we so disappointed that the Americans had failed to show up at our doorsteps? After years of waiting, it seemed that we had lost the battle. Except for its voyeuristic, slightly condescending attitude, the so-called “civilized” world stopped paying attention to our nightmares. Eastern Europe with its gypsies, gymnasts, and dictators couldn’t have been more than an exotic spice at the table of the rich Westerners.

The real Santa, rumors went, had defected to America.

I moved to the United States in 1990 and enthusiastically became a citizen in 1995. Still, American politics left me pretty much cold. I lived, like most of us, in my own bubble as an artist and a writer. Democracy was a given, politics was not my turf.

Over the past eight years, however, I have gradually started to feel both guilty and angry. My growing sense is that we’ve become increasingly trapped under the soft parentheses of our iPods; we are distracted by fresh scandals here and there, we are preoccupied by our endless quest for individual happiness (more, bigger, better), numbed by our designer cell phones, blinded by Britney Spears’ shaved head, and stuck on the soothing mediocrity of “Dancing with the Stars” and “American Idol.”

We had forgotten that democracy is an active, participatory venture.

All the while our soldiers died in Iraq and Afghanistan, and bodies decomposed for days under the New Orleans sun, we kept buying Hummers and stuck Chinese-made yellow ribbon magnets on them, calling ourselves patriots.

In my adopted country, where capitalism cleverly has been able to transform I want it into I need it, where we use nature as a backdrop to sell SUVs, antidepressants and investment plans, where competitive eating has become a sport, and losing weight has become a form of entertainment (I bet no one tunes in to those shows in Rwanda), I have a feeling that we have not learned much from the tragic lessons of September 11.

Last Christmas, when recession was only a laughable rumor spread by liberals, I found myself in a store on Madison Avenue. There I saw a $38,000 Roger Dubuis wrist watch and a pair of shiny Gucci crocodile pumps for $4,200. With all due respect to capitalism, I felt a latent Commie breeding inside me, quietly raging against all the Carrie Bradshaw wannabees taking the “Sex and the City” bus tour around Manhattan.

Measuring our life goals by the ever-increasing size of our flat-screen TVs, mesmerized by the promises of bigger and better toys designed to make us forget, our fingers glued to the buttons of our shiny electronic devices, wearing the masks of “compassionate conservatism” and greed disguised as patriotism, we have been watching our ideals turn into addictions. Santa might have once defected to the United States, only to have ended up on “Celebrity Rehab.”

What happened to my Promised Land? What happened to Democracy? What happened to the Politician as the Servant of the Nation? Where were our moral, spiritual and political leaders? Why have both wealth and poverty become nests of civic impotence? And when was the last time we had a truly presidential President? In a country that emphasizes so much competitiveness, creativity and achievement, why were we stuck with a leader whose ideas and actions, instead of uniting a nation, ended up inspiring endless comic skits on SNL?

On the evening Barack Obama was elected the 44th President of the United States, I was at a friend’s home, glued to the TV until one o’clock in the morning. I wasn't really willing to believe he was winning. I remember feeling that maybe I should start pursuing that European passport I have been entitled to since Romania became a part of the European Union. I will never forget that night, because I stopped waiting for miracles, and became my own Santa Claus, by enjoying the fruit of my vote.

Obama's victory restored everything I believed in when I came to this country. It’s true, our new President faces enormous challenges. With more than 10 million Americans out of work, and an economy in free fall, maybe this is not the right time for that $300 showoff bottle of Dom Perignon champagne, but we could restart on a smaller scale. I have always been suspicious of any mélange of fantasy, politics and euphoria, but this December, please allow me to believe that the best is yet to come.

I emailed back my friend Paul, reminding him that, in a sense, he was right: we create our own best and worst in this country. One of the givens of living in a democracy is that we have to live with the mistakes we make, but fortunately, while presidents come and go, the country remains.

Obama’s election brought back my old belief in democracy not as a collective numbing, but rather as a form of elitism for all. Time is as an equal sieve for rock stars and writers, Presidents, artists and athletes, but I believe we all he have a role in a democracy. I also know for sure that, if in charge, either Joe Six-Pack or Jerry Springer would definitely have lost the Cuban Missile Crisis. Could you blame me that I feel more comfortable with a confidence-exuding, articulate, brilliant African-American holding Columbia University and Harvard Law School degrees to represent me at home and in the international arena? And while an unlicensed plumber is perfectly entitled to get an agent (!) and a book deal for irrelevant opinions someone else helped him express, I feel quite free (and relieved) to stick to the classics. Welcome back, Santa! Because of you, democracy has been proven one more time, a very effective way of taking out the trash.

Florin Ion Firimiţã is a Romanian-American visual artist, teacher and author who splits his time between Southern France and the United States.